Electronics and Babies
Updated: Jan 19, 2021
Everyone seems to have a list of opinions these days on, well, everything. Somewhere near the top of this list is electronics. How much does it really affect our babies? One of our very favorite resources is the Facebook page My Friend the Pediatrician ran by Dr. Liz Donner. She writes beautifully about this concern and what you can do to protect your babies and kids.
What impact do electronic screens have on child development? Does media exposure affect the way that children learn, think, and behave? The AAP recommends nearly zero screen time for children younger than 18 months. Let me explain why. The first 3 years of life are when the most critical brain development takes place – up to 80% of it. Your baby’s brain is like a super-absorbent sponge that is constantly taking in information and trying to make sense of it all. What they need to learn most is how to interact with the world around them. They need to touch, shake, throw, smell, and taste things. They need to see faces, hear voices, and experience human emotion. Those first 3 years go by extremely fast. Electronic colors, motion, and sounds are super exciting -- of course babies love them! However, baby’s brains are incapable of making sense or meaning out of all those bizarre pictures until they’ve developed a strong understanding of the real world. We have evidence to suggest that screen time prior to 18 months of age has lasting negative effects on language development, reading skills, and short-term memory. It may also contribute to problems with sleep, behavior, and attention. Video entertainment is like mental junk food for babies. The infant brain is programmed to learn from human interaction. The interplay of facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language between a toddler and parent is so beautiful and complex. When attention is diverted to a TV screen, this exchange comes to a squealing halt. Even having the TV on in the background is shown to delay language development. One study showed that a parent normally speaks roughly 940 words per hour when their toddler is in the room. Once the TV was turned on, that number fell to 170 words per hour. Fewer words = less interaction = less learning. Forming an attention span is crucial to doing well in school, work, and society. We have found that toddlers who watch more TV are more likely to have attention difficulties by age 7. The theory is that video/TV programming offers a constant stream of interesting, captivating material – never forcing a child to experience the concepts of delayed gratification, patience, or boredom. How can we nurture creative minds if we are constantly filing them with artificial colors and sounds? Every moment spent staring at a screen is a lost opportunity to experience the world in real-time. The good news: The effects of screen time seem to change a bit after the age of 2. At this age, well-designed shows can in fact teach kids literacy, math, science, problem-solving, and social behavior – especially among children whose homes are less intellectually stimulating to begin with. Interactive programs that encourage kids to answer questions are best such as Dora the Explorer, Little Einsteins, Blippi, and Sesame Street. Don’t be fooled by “educational” apps and digital books. When they lack human interaction, they often prove ineffective. Many apps target rote skills such as ABCs and shapes, which is only one tiny component of school readiness. Success in school requires impulse control, managing of emotions, creativity, and flexible thinking – skills that are best learned through unstructured social play with family and friends. Digital eBooks often have so many exciting sounds and effects that kids miss the underlying story and aren’t able to learn as well as they would from a printed book. If you do use eBooks, avoid those with too many fancy special effects, and make sure to read them together to foster parent-child interaction. Even school-aged kids can be negatively impacted by overuse of digital media. We know that having a TV, computer, or cell phone in the bedroom can lead to less sleep at night. Heavy media use in preschool years is linked to risk of childhood obesity – not only because TV time is sedentary but also due to increased snacking and exposure to food advertisements. Violent media content (including video games) can contribute to behavioral problems. Without proper guidance, the line between Hollywood and reality can become blurred. Monitor your child’s media. Try to keep bedrooms, meal times, and play time free of screens. What else can you do to combat the era of technology overload? Try to put a 1-hour cap on screen time from the ages of 2-5 years and no more than 2 hours for kids older than 5. Whenever possible, make the use of media interactive by experiencing it together rather than letting them watch alone. Foster healthy communication skills by teaching nursery rhymes such as peek-a-boo, pat-a-cake, Itsy Bitsy Spider, etc. Teach toddlers to blow kisses, wave bye-bye, and clap their hands. Read books together. Share toys. Go look at dogs in the park. When two people focus on the same thing at the same time, they are strengthening their “joint attention” skills, which is vital to communication and social skill development. Choose age-appropriate toys such as dolls, animals, action figures, food utensils, cars, plans, blocks, shapes, puzzles, trains, coloring books, crayons, markers, clay, play-dough, stickers, board games, balls, push/pull toys, and tricycles. No need to fall victim to race or gender-based stereotypes when making your toy selections! Set limits and enforce technology-free zones like around the kitchen table. Go on tech-free outings to the park, pool, zoo, museum, age-appropriate concert, orchestra, theater, or sports event. Snap a few pictures to capture the moment – but don’t forget to live in it as well. Finally, make sure that YOU aren’t over-indulging in screen time. When you are on your smartphone, non-verbal signals such as eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and body language are often reduced or eliminated completely. These non-verbal cues teach children to recognize emotions and understand the intent of what is being said. I know that cutting down on screen time is tough in the midst of a pandemic. I’m not suggesting that we need to put down our smartphones and tablets completely, as they still hold purpose and reason. Just remember that nothing can ever take the place of face-to-face interaction when it comes to childhood development.
Every minute spent focused on a screen could be a missed opportunity to interact and learn with your little ones. Don’t blink – time flies by so fast.
A big thanks to My Friend the Pediatrician for this information, we hope it taught you something! Check her out on her Facebook page for more great posts!
As always- like, comment, and share!
Jeri Ford, RN, BSN, CPN